Saturday, March 7, 2009

What's England's problem - Ebren

It's a week off in the Six Nations championship, and time to reflect.

While there's plenty to write about Wales, Ireland, France Scotland and Italy, that's not what I'm going to do - instead I'm going to ask a question that's been on my mind for years now: "What's England's problem?"

Why am I asking this now? Well, put simply it's because all of a sudden the question has become a lot harder to answer.

As the wonderful 2003 team/machine broke apart, England were always going to struggle. We had this lunatic notion at the time that so blessed were the Red Roses the England 'B' team could take on and win against any side in Europe and give a good showing against the Tri-Nation powerhouses. We were wrong, very, very wrong.

But that lack of players no longer applies.

Not since the days of Bracken and Dawson have we had two scrum halves of international quality fighting for a starting shirt - gone are the has beens and almost men that have tried to link play between forwards and backs. Ellis and Care are actually good - I was as surprised as anyone.

Cueto, Sackey and Armitage are players of genuine pace and quality - with classical outside breaks in their locker to make the purist's heart sing. Tindal my be a brute, but he has more international pedigree than his girlfriend's mount (if a little less pace and good looks). Flutey offers trickery and experience - and a player of such rare ability as Tait is left on the bench.

Fly Half is a problem, Flood and Goode are adequate, but neither really convinces me as an international player. The feeling persists that a fit Wilkinson (or even Hodgeson) would walk into the role, but the stronger feeling is that Cipriani is missing out. He might be raw, but he will stay that way unless given game time. Playing a defensive fly half - no matter how much he looks like Phillip Glennister and how happy that makes me - at home against Italy is criminal.

The back row may lack a Williams or a Harinordoquy, but it's the strongest we've had since the Back-Dallaglio-Hill triumvirate. Easter, Haskell and Worsley offer muscle, energy and really effective defence - which is their job.

The second rows lack genuine world class, but is good enough, Vickery and Sheridan at 3 and 1 are impressive and Mears the equal of many of the men who pulled on the No 2 shirt in the 'glory days'.

So - what we have is a good team, stacked with ability and with flashes of brilliance. But it's not good enough.

An unconvincing win against Italy, losses - no matter how close - to Wales and Ireland, and the worrying prospect of games against France and even Scotland to come.

Which brings me back to my original question: what's the problem?

Discipline is what the team is getting hammered for, but that's a red herring. Players do stupid things, they always have and always will, but they do them a lot more often when they're under pressure.

It's really rather hard to concede a penalty or be sin-binned when in possession of the ball and moving forward and penalties generally reflect the balance of play (defending teams just give more of them away - a point I made repeatedly when everyone was criticising England for winning courtesy of Jonny's left boot).

Our defence has been sound, Ireland and Wales are exciting, attacking teams - we smothered them, actually outscoring Wales two tries to one and restricting Ireland to a close-range smash.

So what are we lacking, what's the difference between a good team going close and a great one winning all the time?

Well, part of the difference is habit. The Wales or Ireland of a few seasons ago might not have had the savvy to close out those games. The England of a few seasons ago would have known how to win them. This is not a comment on players, more on the team mentality. But you don't change that mentality without winning a few games.

Part of what's missing is a kicker - we missed enough penalties to beat both Ireland and Wales - Woodward always maintained you should not set foot on an international pitch without a world-class kicker - but we can't conjure one our of thin air, so we will have to ignore that while hoping Johnson is making his available options practice a lot (Armitage for the long-term anyone?).

But I think it comes down to inspiration - that moment when you break a line, knock an opposing player off their feet, drop a goal.

Martin Johnson was strong, hard, unrelenting. He inspired by refusing to quit, ignoring risk of injury and pain, and driving forward. He never inspired with skill or controlled with intelligence. Wilkinson, Greenwood, Robinson - heck, even Austin Healy - were the ones that made things happen.

We need that vision back - in short we need Tait and Cipriani in the team. It might weaken the defence. Scratch that, it would weaken the defence. But as good as this defence is, without inspiration going forward or a kicker to convert possession and manage territory; defence is not going to win games. So we need players that put points on the board, not players that restrict our losses.

What's England's problem then? Simples - as Alexander the Meerkat might put it - we are trying not to lose rather than win.


bluedaddy said...

Come on Lord Eb, how much are Comparethemeerkat paying you?

It says something about my increasing decrepitude that I'd come across that advert several times before twigging the whole meerkat sounds like market' thing. I'd previously assumed that they chose meerkats because they look cute in smoking jackets.

As for the rugby - I haven't taken any real interest in it since the days of Edwards, Bennett and JPR. For this, as for pretty much everything else, I blame Thatcher.

Ebren said...

Thatcher was one of the most successful right wingers in English history - with genuine international impact. If nothing else it helps explain the Hatred the Scots and Welsh have for her.

Of course, the position of attacking right wing has become a lot less fashionable since the 80s.Centres seem all the rage nowadays.

Anonymous said...

it's all about this funny shape of the ball always bouncing away Sir.

guitou said...

i did it .

William Webb Greengrass said...

Thatcher has definitely lost pace.
She might make a good hooker if she tidied her game up.

offsideintahiti said...

Feeling confident, are we, m'lord?

Ebren said...

Not remotely feeling confident. Just trying to find a way to feel some hope.

mimi said...

I'm expecting a very interesting game tomorrow. England, obviously, can't win anything this year, and the big match will be next week, but England could prove all their doubters wrong tomorrow by going out and not getting a single yellow card!

offside said...

grrmmm, wll dn. gd gm.

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